I have been prompted to celebrate carriage driving’s appeal and accessibility for all ages by the news this week that Fred Matthews won Bexhill Show at 88 years old and, at the other end of the scale, Fenton Kirkland entered in the junior whip class at our local British Driving Society (BDS) show aged just 4. Few sports can be enjoyed fully by such a spread in ages and variety of equines as carriage driving.
The main advantage that driving has over riding is the comfort and support you have on the carriage seat. It gives a very secure position once you have adjusted the foot rest correctly. Providing you keep your hands steady you can shift your body weight or leg position without influencing the horse and this is a great advantage if you suffer from muscular cramps or stiffness or have weak body balance.
There is the added confidence boost of having someone with you on the carriage who can easily get down to assist from the ground or, if required, operate a 2nd set of reins. This is a really easy system to set up since the experienced whip runs the reins from the stronger bit setting, which will act as an override system if needed. This is ideal for the young or disabled or very novice driver, allowing them to have the full experience of driving in safety.
This means all forms of driving can be enjoyed by all ages, with many people taking up competitive driving as well as enjoying jaunting out for pleasure.
BDS shows even have special classes for young drivers and once they reach the age of 10 they take part in Young Drivers National Championships through the Osborne qualifiers. Drivers as young as Fenton can take pride in helping with preparing for the show, grooming their ponies and helping to clean carriage and harness. Not just parents but grandparents can be seen sitting alongside the young drivers as experienced whips and this is another wonderful aspect of the sport as it brings the generations together.
All ages enjoy competing in horse driving trials. Indoors there are special classes at the national finals at Keysoe for veterans and categories for young drivers aged 8 and above. Outdoors the age for taking part in national events has been lowered from 14 to 12 years. Again families and friends help each other out, enjoying this exhilarating yet sociable sport together.
The most well known veteran driver must be Prince Philip, who featured in the press during the recent Royal Windsor Horse Show driving his team of 4 Fell ponies (right) at the head of the BDS meet, aged 92!
The Prince took up driving in his 50s when he gave up polo due to his advancing years. His remarkable story is published in his very interesting book Thirty Years On and Off the Box Seat, which he published 10 years ago.
It is fascinating to read how he got involved in competitive driving and took 5 Cleveland bay horses from the Royal Mews and, with many trials and tribulations, got these ceremonial horses competing in driving trials.
At the “grand old age of 65 — the oldest competitor on the international circuit” he took a new direction and press ganged the Fells at Balmoral to form a pony team.
He represented Britain in several European and World Championship events, only giving up competitive driving trials aged 85 — a truly remarkable feat given the physical demands of the cross-country phase.
Prince Philip aged 92 and Fenton aged 4 — both passionate about driving and regularly taking up the reins for the pure pleasure of enjoying their ponies. What other equestrian activity offers so much to such a wide age range?